Ukraine has dismissed an offer from Russian President Vladimir Putin for a 36-hour ceasefire over Orthodox Christmas, saying there would be no truce until Russia withdraws its forces from occupied land.
The Kremlin said Putin had ordered a 36-hour ceasefire from midday (10:00 GMT) on Friday after a call for a Christmas truce from Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.
“Taking into account the appeal of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, I instruct the Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation to introduce a cease-fire regime along the entire line of contact of the parties in Ukraine from 12.00 on January 6, 2023, to 24.00 on January 7, 2023,” Putin said in a statement on Thursday.
“Proceeding from the fact that a large number of citizens professing Orthodoxy live in the areas of hostilities, we call on the Ukrainian side to declare a cease-fire and allow them to attend services on Christmas Eve, as well as on Christmas Day,” Putin said.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that “Russia wants to use truce as cover to stop our advances in Donbas and bring in more equipment”.
A senior Ukrainian official quickly dismissed the proposal and said a ceasefire could only happen if Russia leaves occupied territory in Ukraine.
Presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak wrote on Twitter that Russia “must leave the occupied territories – only then will it have a ‘temporary truce’. Keep hypocrisy to yourself.”
He said that unlike Russia, Ukraine was not attacking foreign territory or killing civilians, only destroying “members of the occupation army on its territory”.
United States President Joe Biden responded to Putin’s ceasefire order by saying it was simply an effort to find breathing room for his war effort.
“He was ready to bomb hospitals and nurseries and churches” on December 25 and on New Year’s Day, Biden said, adding: “I think he’s trying to find some oxygen.”
A ‘cynical trap’
Earlier on Thursday, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, called for both sides of the war in Ukraine to observe a Christmas truce so “Orthodox people can attend services on Christmas Eve and on the day of the Nativity of Christ”.
The Russian Orthodox Church is the biggest in the Eastern Orthodox communion.
It has around 100 million followers within Russia and more outside.
However, Ukraine dismissed the request made by the patriarch, who had previously justified the war as part of Russia’s “metaphysical struggle” to prevent a liberal ideological encroachment from the West.
Podolyak responded by saying that the Russian Orthodox Church is a “war propagandist” that had incited the “mass murder” of Ukrainians and the militarisation of Russia.
“The statement of the Russian Orthodox Church about the ‘Christmas Truce’ is a cynical trap and an element of propaganda,” he said.
Since November, Ukraine’s security services have cracked down on Mosow-linked churches and raided properties accused of engaging in anti-Ukrainian activity and supporting Russia’s invasion.
In December, Ukraine placed punitive measures against seven senior clerics who were allegedly among Orthodox leaders known to have been sympathetic to Moscow.
Earlier on Thursday, Russia and Ukraine made clear there would be no negotiations between them any time soon, effectively spurning an offer of mediation by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who spoke separately to both Putin and Ukraine’s Zelenskyy.
The Kremlin said Putin had told Erdogan that Moscow was ready for talks – but only under the condition that Ukraine “take into account the new territorial realities”, a reference to acknowledging Moscow’s annexation of Ukrainian territory.
Ukraine’s Podolyak called that demand “fully unacceptable”.
“The Russian Federation (Putin) under the word ‘talks’ offers Ukraine & the world to recognise ‘its right to seize foreign territories’ & ‘to fix the absence of legal consequences for mass killings on foreign territory,'” he wrote on Twitter.
More than 10 months after Putin ordered an invasion of neighbouring Ukraine and seized swathes of its land, Russia and Ukraine have both entered the new year with hardened diplomatic positions.
After significant battlefield victories in the second half of 2022, Kyiv appears increasingly confident that it can drive Russian invaders from more of its land.
Putin, for his part, has shown no willingness to discuss relinquishing his territorial conquests despite mounting losses among his troops, after he ordered the first call-up of reservists since World War II.
During the conversation between the Russian and Turkish presidents, Erdogan urged Putin to implement a “unilateral ceasefire”, according to a statement from the Turkish president’s office.
The Turkish president also spoke about a possible ceasefire with Ukraine and said they were ready to mediate “lasting peace”.
Erdogan has acted as a mediator in the past, notably helping to broker a United Nations-backed deal that unblocked Ukrainian ports to ship grain. He has spoken by phone to both Putin and Zelenskyy on the same day several times, most recently last month.